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June 22, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Books and Islands

in Ojibwe Country

Louise Erdrich

National Geographic: 114 pp., $20

"I'm 48 years old and I can't travel aimlessly," writes Louise Erdrich, in an effort to justify and rationalize a month trip with her 18-month-old baby girl among the lakes of northern Michigan and across the border into Canada. (If you've been reading Erdrich for years, you know that she always feels compelled to explain herself. If you've been reading Erdrich for years, you hardly care why she writes as long as she never stops.) "I always seem to have a question that I would like to answer....The question is: Books. Why?"

Erdrich, with her four daughters, started a bookstore several years ago in Minneapolis, which allows her to spend time among books and allows them to pass through her hands. In "Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country," she travels by car and boat; meets up with her lover and the father of her baby girl, who is an Ojibwe spiritual leader; visits several ancient Ojibwe rock paintings (leaving handfuls of tobacco as a gift to the ancestors) and ends up, quite literally, on an island of books.

This sanctuary for writers and Ojibwe scholars and teachers was left by an explorer, Ernest Oberholtzer, mid-century. Here, Erdrich reveals her true appetite for books, including a covetousness for certain volumes that borders on the unethical. Erdrich doesn't like to travel: "For me, the leaving hurts," she writes. But her calm voice and true instincts are plainly revealed in this simple account of a writer's regeneration.

*

Stolen Figs

And Other Adventures in Calabria

Mark Rotella

North Point Press: 308 pp., $25

"There's nothing tastier than stolen figs," explains Giuseppe, Mark Rotella's guide through the region of his ancestors. After a brief trip to Calabria with his father, a sculptor who has not returned to the town where he was born for 30 years, Rotella finds himself drawn back again and again to the hardscrabble, still un-touristed area in the toe of the boot. He returns come l'ulivo, like the olive, every two years.

In the village of Gimigliano, he finds that he is related to pretty much everyone. He feels enormous respect for the Calabrese hardheadedness, for their sadness and their endless hard work. His palate is awakened by homemade bread baked in olive branches, by fresh picante sauce and wines that remind him of the Calabrese themselves: hard-headed and flavorful. "Stolen Figs" is the anti-Mayle version of travels in Europe, of finding one's true home, whether you like it or not, the source of your personality and appetites.

*

Fabulous Small Jews

Stories

Joseph Epstein

Houghton Mifflin: 340 pp., $24

"Felix Arnstein was dismantling his library." And so begins this spry collection of short stories about the golden years of the men and women whose childhoods were so dramatically interrupted by the war. The stories are built around characters -- Felix the academic, a dry-cleaner from Chicago, Don Juan Zimmerman -- all in various states of unraveling and dismantling. All have lived reasonable lives; most have been divorced or never married but have found their love and comfort elsewhere, in books or in serial relationships. They have come to that point where all they want is peace.

In "Felix Emeritus," the main character, a Viennese Jew who spent several years at the Buchenwald concentration camp, enters a convalescent home, where he meets a man named Schindler, with even darker views of human nature than his own. "Neither of them, the old literary critic in Felix knew, propelled any plot; each existed in a state of nearly total inconsequence." Like the woman who chooses to stay in a loveless marriage because it is easier than leaving, these characters trade something important for peace in their final years. They make their bargains with their gods. Joseph Epstein has a light touch, which allows the readers to make their own meaning from his stories.

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